By: James J. Tenn, Jr.
New Hampshire Bar Association
Bar News - March 19 2010
On Friday, April 2, all of the state courthouses will close for budgetary reasons. It will happen again – on two more Fridays – April 30 and May 28. On these dates, as well as on additional dates not yet identified, employees of the judicial branch will take unpaid furloughs as part of the courts’ cost-cutting measures.
These closures are part of the NH Supreme Court’s extraordinary response to the state’s financial crisis. The judicial branch plans to close 17 days in 2010, and an additional number of days in 2011. These actions were necessitated by the state legislature’s decision to reduce all state expenditures by at least $25 million dollars by June 30, 2011; the judicial portion of this reduction is $3.1 million dollars. The furloughs, required for a portion of the non-judicial staff, were voluntarily agreed to by virtually all of the judges and marital masters and the unionized portion of the judicial branch employees. These dedicated employees are to be commended for their voluntary participation in the unprecedented furloughs; the alternative – layoffs – would have been much worse.
Nevertheless, the furloughs will undoubtedly have vast implications for the administration of justice. Fewer court days will result in inconvenience and delay. Recently our Association received an email from a family law practitioner. She wrote because she is worried about the consequences of furloughs when lawyers are already experiencing court-time delays. Many of us are familiar with clients who need child support, who need orders regarding parenting time, and who need access to the courts to deal with issues that are fundamental to families. While our courts continue to operate, they do so hampered by the lack of adequate resources, and now the additional burden of furloughs. In these times, we as lawyers need to become more actively involved and to speak out about how cost reductions are harming our justice system.
It is incumbent upon all of us to speak positively about the importance of preserving access to justice even in times of financial crisis. Please allow me to list two crucial points:
Furloughs must be a temporary measure. The proper administration of justice requires that our court system remain accessible. Adequate funding is needed to ensure that sufficient staff is on hand to keep our courts open and the process moving.
The judicial branch is not just a department of government. While the judicial system is funded by the same tax dollars that are shrinking with the loss of revenue experienced by businesses and property owners throughout the state, the judicial system is unique. It has a unique purpose, one that is integrally related to the civic good and our Constitutional rights. It is essential that the citizens of our state have access to a process of justice. This expectation is at the bedrock of our democratic system. While history confirms that poor economic times eventually progress to better times, we must continue to harness our best efforts to advocate for an efficient and impartial justice system.
The financial crunch affects other states as well. I recently returned from the Midwinter Meeting of the National Conference of Bar Presidents in Florida. At this national gathering of bar leaders, it became clear that New Hampshire is not alone. Several states’ court systems have turned to unpaid furloughs in an effort to reduce spending. There is little comfort in numbers.
The Constitution of the New Hampshire Bar Association requires the Bar to become involved in issues that affect the administration of justice. Our Bar Association must be involved in the process that keeps our courts available to administer justice. At the same time, you and your clients are the best spokespersons for adequate resources for NH’s justice system—and for the real-life consequences to citizens, businesses and communities, of weakened, less accessible courts. Last year the Association established a webpage ("Why We Care") to collect and disseminate information regarding the adverse consequences of limited funding. The webpage also provides information and resources as tools for each member of the Bar Association to use in explaining the critical need for an independent system of justice with adequate resources.
I encourage you to respond and to communicate with the Bar Association through this webpage, and to discuss the situation with your friends, colleagues and elected officials. In this era of strained resources, we must all work together to keep the courthouse doors open.
James J. Tenn, Jr., is 2009-2010 NHBA President. He practices in Manchester with the firm of Tenn & Tenn P.A.